§ 2.57 p.m.
§ The Earl of Cranbrook rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the Select Committee 438 on Science and Technology on Science and Technology in Local Government (1st Report, 1985–86, H.L. 11).
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, in the six years of its existence there has been a conscious progress in the choice of topics for inquiry by your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology. In 1981, the committee undertook a study of the provision and co-ordination of scientific advice to central government. An inquiry into the scientific and technical capacity of local government was a natural successor. This inquiry was undertaken mainly during the past Session. In context the term "local government" was taken to include all tiers of local authority; that is to say, the Scottish regions, the shire counties of England and Wales, the island councils, the Greater London Council and the metropolitan counties, the London boroughs, the City of London and districts of all kinds within the larger tiers.
§ The main focus of interest of the Select Committee in the course of this inquiry is stated in paragraphs 1.3 and 1.4 of the first volume of the two-volume report. These were, first, to evaluate the quality of science and technological support available to the local authorities in-house or through outside specialists; secondly, to discover how improvements and innovations arise within the system and, thirdly, to assess the capacity of local authorities to respond to new demands and new problems in the areas of science and technology.
§ For this inquiry the committee was strengthened by the co-option of additional members with special expertise in local government. I should like to express my thanks for their assistance to the noble Baronesses, Lady Faithfull and Lady Stedman, and to the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford. We were advised by three specialists whom also I should like to thank on behalf of the Select Committee, Mr. L. Davey, Professor A. D. May, and Mr. K. M. Spencer, and, as always, we were ably serviced by the Clerks to this House, Mr. Hayter and Mr. Wells.
§ I should also like to express the gratitude of the committee to the many local authorities who responded to our invitation to submit evidence: to the local authority associations, to the associations of professional officers and other scientific and professional bodies who also provided us with evidence; commercial organisations; and individuals who submitted voluminous written evidence and in some cases assisted us at oral sessions.
§ On one occasion the committee met in April 1985, in Edinburgh—the first time, I believe, that the Science and Technology Committee had sat in Scotland. I am grateful to the Scottish Office for the use of the Crown Office buildings on that occasion. Mrs. Lynda Chalker, at that time Minister of State at the Department of Transport, kindly joined officials of the department in giving oral evidence to the committee in March.
§ Dealing with a subject so vast and with local authorities that are so numerous, the committee was forced to place a self-imposed limit on the scope of its review. The committee therefore chose for special but, I should emphasise, not exclusive, attention the following subjects: highways and traffic management; environmental health; information technology and, as an example of a novel function that had been imposed 439 by recent legislation, the subject of the licensing and inspecting of zoos.
§ A questionnaire, which your Lordships will find in Volume I on pages 77 to 78, was sent out to 100 local authorities. This was a selected sample but it included the Greater London Council, all metropolitan counties, representative regions and shire counties, and districts of all kinds within these upper tier authorities. The responses of these 100 local authorities subjected to the questionnaire were reviewed and summarised by our specialist advisers and are reported on pages 79 to 125 of the first volume.
§ This report, in its first volume, consists of a short introduction followed by three main sections. Section 2 lists some of the many important requirements for science and technology among the local authorities and the nature of their provision. We called it the "Factual Background", and I hope that it will be useful as such. The third section represents the views of witnesses on the main matters of interest to the committee. The headings again illustrate the topics over which our inquiry ranged. These were strengths and weaknesses, organisation, funding, staff, research, innovation and the dissemination of information. Section 4 outlines the opinion of the committee. Finally, in Section 5, there is a summary of the main conclusions and a collation of the recommendations. I should like to emphasise that the recommendations there are not aimed only at Her Majesty's Government: we also make specific recommendations of which we feel it would be advantageous if the local authorities, the local authority associations and others connected with the local authorities would take note.
§ The factual background on pages 11 to 25 of Volume 1 emphasises the pervasiveness of science and technology throughout local government. Science and technology provide the underpinning of civilised existence as we expect it in this country. For instance, your Lordships' daily travels, whether you take a long or a short journey, will be immensely influenced by engineering and by road design, layout and construction, and the safe and unpolluting disposal of the various wastes that are engendered by our society involves sophisticated chemistry and engineering, and the protection of the consumer depends on a wide range of physical and chemical testings.
§ In respect of these fundamental services, the citizen of this United Kingdom, wherever he or she may reside, ought to be confident of an acceptable and dependable level of performance. The committee took notice of the long-standing traditions of diversity in local government, which were often stressed by witnesses. Clearly, there are areas of activity where local needs are different and local views on priorities legitimately diverge. However, there has to be a balance and this question is discussed in paragraph 1.5 and again in Chapter 4.3–4 and summarised in Chapter 5.2.
§ In discussing this balance, the committee also noticed that the work and the reports of the audit commission tend to press for national standards of uniformity in the area of the commission's concern which overlaps with the Select Committee's interests. The committee were concerned that excessive 440 championing of diversity may impede inter-authority co-operation, may risk under-provision on the one hand and, on the other hand, unnecessary duplication of resources.
§ In the course of the inquiry, the Committee noticed that there is variation between like authorities in the fields of science and technology. There are differences between one authority and another, differences in the administrative structure of the services, differences in the development of capacity and in the provision of technical equipment, whether in-house or through consultants, and there are also striking differences in the perceived priorities between one authority and another.
This leads to the first recommendation which I should like to emphasise, Recommendation 5.4 on Page 66 of the first volume. The committee believe that central government are at present not as well-informed as they could be about the details of local authority science and technological services. Indeed, in evidence, published in Volume II, page 114, paragraph 2, the Department of the Environment positively disclaimed a direct role,
in ensuring the adequacy of whatever scientific and technical services are provided by, or are available to, individual local authorities".
§ Yet, as the same evidence continues—and I paraphrase it—there is at the same time a duty upon each major department of state that is responsible for some aspect of the local authorities' functions to make judgments about the general adequacy of scientific and technical services. A large proportion of the funding of these services comes from national resources, as is appropriate, because, at the same time, in very many fields, the job of executing national policies falls upon local authorities.
§ New legislation, as we were told, can place unfamiliar demands on local authority services, and it is clear that any new facility that is thereby required ought sensibly to be in place before new laws come into force.
§ In order to promote efficiency and to limit friction between different administrative tiers of local authority government, it is vital that the central government should possess a detailed knowledge of local functions in their actual performance. At present manpower levels, I find it hard to see how this can be so. For instance, on the subject of contaminated land, which is a major problem in some of the old industrial towns of central and northern England, the Department of the Environment staff consists of one, plus supervision in London, and two to three at the Building Research Establishment, plus research effort elsewhere, as we were told. The committee doubts that the general obligation to understand and to be closely familiar with the functioning of science and technological services in local authorities can safely be jeopardised simply on the grounds of economy.
§ In the course of this inquiry, by concentrating on science and technology, we obtained, in my view, a new and useful insight into the local government functions and services. It appeared to members of the committee that this particular standpoint was unfamiliar to the local authority associations. The members of these associations, both councillors and officers, the committee believe, would benefit from a 441 continuing review on similar lines to those that the committee pursued. The report therefore proposes in Section 4.20 on page 47, that these associations should themselves establish standing committees on science and technology.
§ The internal organisation of the local authority associations broadly mirrors that of member authorities, both in numbers and in terms of reference of the committees. This is one reason for the recommendation 5.5 that all local authorities should set up science sub-committees. However, the argument is deeper than this. The committee notes that familiarity with the powers and potential of science and technology, particularly in new and innovative procedures, is thinly spread among elected members and not necessarily universal among senior officers. There is no single route to innovation in local authority affairs. As a generalisation, it arises from a fruitful interaction between one or two officers and one or two elected members. This we saw in council after council.
§ There is a danger that potentially important initiatives can be stifled. A forum is needed to ensure that a committed group of members, plus officers, continually reviews the exisiting science and technology and explores potential improvements. The proposed sub-committee of the local authorities would provide this forum. The appropriate senior officers to attend this proposed sub-committee will depend upon the tier of local government. At the county regional level, it will be the public analyst plus surveyor or engineer; at the district level, it will be the chief environmental health officer and the chief technical officer.
§ In the opinion of the committee it is essential that there should be a specialist chemist's view obtainable at all times to the local authority administration. The committee's discussions with public analysts and visits to local authority-maintained laboratories and consultants' laboratories were rewarding and enlightening. The relative contribution of public and private sector public analysts is illustrated on page 18 in the table and in the maps on pages 19 to 20. The present situation is that in England and Wales about half the population are served by private laboratories and about half by publicly-maintained laboratories. In Scotland, the local authority-maintained sector dominates at about 5 to 1 in the number of laboratories and 10 to 1 in the number of people served.
§ Many authorities, including regions and counties and some London boroughs, are served by a laboratory which is located outside the administrative area of that authority—in some cases at a considerable distance. The committee believe that in addition to his statutory duties, the qualifications and experience of the public analyst can be of value to local government in a much wider field. In some authorities this role is recognised and the public analyst holds the post of scientific adviser; but this is not universal. The committee recommend that it should be so; that at least the scientific adviser should have direct access to the management team with the status of chief officer. The committee recognise that there may be contractual or logistical complications in cases where the public analyst is a private consultant or where his laboratory is located at a distance from the authority 442 that he serves. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will say that the Government are able to support the committee in encouraging the Association of Public Analysts, the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Scottish Association of Local Authorities to enter into negotiations to achieve this objective.
§ There are numerous recommendations which are laid out in our report in some detail and summarised in Chapter 5. It would be otiose for me to repeat these at length but I feel that they are useful and valuable reading. Where laboratories are concerned, you will see that the committee feels that a degree of regionalisation is desirable. The load must be spread more widely than it is now and the evidence of the Government Chief Chemist and the Association of Public Analysts clearly pointed in this direction. Again, I would be very grateful for remarks from my noble friend on the Front Bench on the view of the Government in promoting further regionalisation of public analyst laboratories.
§ The problem of research needs of local authorities was one which was discussed at some length. The role of central government in promoting research for and on behalf of local authorities was somewhat contentious. If your Lordships read the evidence closely, you will see conflicting views. But it is clear to the committee that central government have a proxy role and that central government should make an effort to identify issues which are widely seen by the local authorities as being of common concern and should promote research in these fields. One of the major problems is that of funding and accountancy. In the GRE (grant related expenditure) calculations, there is no place for research or for science, as such. This seemed to the committee to create a difficult and anomalous situation and it is one which needs steps to remedy and to recognise more forcefully the value of research to local authorities.
§ Other areas of concern lie in the field of waste disposal, a subject that has been pursued by the Select Committee for a considerable time. In the view of the committee, there are grounds for anxiety over hazardous waste disposal in Scotland, as outlined in paragraph 4.71, and in Wales we understood at the time of the inquiry that there was review in hand. I should be very grateful to my noble friend if he is able to report to me the result of this review on the role of the district councils versus the county authorities on waste disposal in Wales.
§ The problem of noise is one which many people count high in the list of nuisances. There is the need for a review of standards for the assessment of environmental noise as a nuisance. Where the Zoo Act was concerned, the main technical problem lies in the provision of veterinarians with experience in the care of non-domestic animals. This is one which seems to be soluble in time; and, for the time being, the committee suggest that the list of veterinarians available to local authorities should be allowed to carry duplications with the Secretary of State's list.
I should like to emphasise on behalf of the committee what we say very firmly in paragraph 4.4 of our report:
The overall level of expertise and dedication in local government is good and in some authorities it is excellent.
There are weaknesses identified in Chapter 3 of the report but none of these calls for urgent remedies. On the other hand, I am covinced that the committee's recommendations are valuable, are worthwhile and, if implemented, will lead to a long-term improvement in the state of science and technology in the local authorities.
§ I must beg your Lordships' indulgence for a few moments to refer to the issue which I suppose I can encapsulate by calling it "the abolition issue". This is one which came up during the inquiry of the Select Committee and one which I cannot avoid; although I do not want to dwell on it for very long. We recognised very quickly the importance of the English metropolitan counties' and the Greater London Council's scientific services branch as a centre of excellence. The committee expressed their anxieties—I think fairly adequately—in the preliminary report and during the last Session's debates on the Bill as it progressed. But there are areas of concern that remain and I should like to ask my noble friend two specific questions. The first pertains to London. I understand that it has quite recently been decided that all—and I emphasise "all"—the staff of the scientific services branch of the Greater London Council will be transferred to the London residuary body on 1st April and that this will provide the opportunity for decisions about their long-term future. I wonder whether my noble friend can say if this is true or not?
§ The second question which concerns me deals with the issues of traffic. There is outstanding concern about the arrangements for reporting, analysing and surveying in a productive fashion the traffic accidents on a county-wide basis in the metropolitan counties (or some of them) and on a London-wide basis in London. I should be grateful to know from my noble friend what arrangements have been made to safeguard the existing system in these cases. It is a fat report. It contains a great deal of meat. I beg to move that this House should take note of it.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on Science and Technology in Local Government (1st Report, 1985–86, H.L. 11).—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)
§ 3.19 p.m.
§ Baroness Lockwood
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for the very comprehensive way in which he has introduced this report. As a member of the committee, I should also like to thank him for his chairmanship. I think that his lead in the way we approached this very wide and difficult subject was invaluable as were his penetrating analyses of some of the problems that we were facing.
As he indicated, this was a quite unique and novel approach to local government. As a result of our report and inquiry, a number of people (both elected and officers) began to think in quite a different way about the relevance of science and technology to local government services. Science and technology is really a subject which cuts across the present committee structure of local government, and all of us on the committee feel confident that if our recommendation 444 (which was referred to by the noble Earl) that local authorities should set up a science and technology sub-committee of their Policy and Resources Committee, were accepted, it could only lead to the benefit of local government services.
We see such a sub-committee as being responsible for looking ahead and assessing the authorities' need for scientific and technical services as well as having the function of procuring science and technological advice and support across the board, including, as we say, those areas which do not come within the competence of an individual department. This can perhaps be more readily illustrated by the field of computer technology. All departments have a need of the use of computer services to some extent, and it is important that the full scope of computer technology is fully appreciated by all the departments and that it is not allowed to develop in an ad hoc way, perhaps at the whim of the head of one particular department, but to be co-ordinated for the sake of both efficiency and economy. Hence, in this particular area there is a further recommendation that each local authority which is developing computer or information technology capability should devise a strategy as a first step.
A number of the conclusions and recommendations which the committee came to really provide a broad strategy for local government in the whole area of science and technology. As the noble Earl has said, we concluded that we were impressed by the overall expertise in local government, which is good generally and, as he said, in some areas excellent. But we also felt that the scale of the operation was important, particularly in relation to both the quality of the service and to economy, and therefore that this should lead to an increase in co-operation and combined operations between authorities—in our view, preferably on a joint committee basis, where the expense involved in both capital expenditure and expensive equipment could be spread.
Our concern was that despite the value of local initiative and diversity, of which local government and the representatives of it reminded us from time to time with great pride, there is the problem of the conflict between local activity and the need to have a comprehensive service. We indicate in the report that we saw danger signals, particularly with the financial constraints which are now affecting local government and which inevitably are going to impinge on the scientific and technological services.
In paragraph 4.5 of the report we list a number of areas where this is happening. For instance, we fear the limitations on an authority's financial capability to innovate; financial restraint could push training and research even further down the list of priorities; we see that financial constraint could hinder the introduction or extension of information technology, and we feel that recruitment problems and greater immobility could result because of the difficulties of staff now transferring from one local government authority to another because local authorities are not recruiting new staff. So these financial constraints we saw as danger signals which could impede the further development of science and technology. Yet we had to add to that a further difficulty which we saw: that was the abolition issue which has been referred to already.
445 If we pause for a moment and think of the interim report which this committee produced earlier last year, the committee saw the metropolitan counties and the GLC as centres of excellence and we referred to their impressive innovative spirit. In paragraph 35 of that interim report we also referred to the excellent scientific and technical staff the metropolitan counties and the GLC had recruited because they were able to offer a career prospect—not just to the employees of those particular authorities, but to the whole of local government.
In a further paragraph of that report we again refer to the contributions those larger authorities had made to initial training and to in-service re-training and up-grading. The demise of these authorities is going to leave an enormous gap in the whole area of science and technology which the individual authorities, the smaller authorities, are going to find difficult to fill. Therefore, we recommend, as a committee, and we say in paragraph 4.34, I think, that there should be no automatic presumption in favour of self-sufficiency within an individual authority. In other words, we are saying that in the current situation no individual authority should automatically feel it can provide all the services that it needs on its own.
Nevertheless, the committee also recognises, and again it says, that it does not believe that voluntary joint groupings will have the same dynamism as individual authorities. We are contrasting the metropolitan counties with the joint committees that we are recommending. That fact seems to be borne out by the tortuous discussions which have been taking place between the different metropolitan district councils pending the disappearance of the metropolitan counties. I understand that the position in West Yorkshire is better than in most metropolitan county areas. Certainly it is better than the position in South Yorkshire, where I understand that only one county-wide service is to survive the abolition, and that is urban traffic control. All the other services, including, I understand, accident and traffic data, to which the noble Earl referred, will be split between the different authorities, with all the problems that that is leaving for the staff involved.
In West Yorkshire, the position is rather better, although all the scientific and technological teams are by no means remaining intact. Highways, engineering and technical services are to be a single unit providing a county-wide service, but it is to be serviced by some 700 staff compared with a staff of 3,500 engaged under the metropolitan counties. Incidentally, the three top executives—the county engineer and his two deputies, one of whom is responsible for engineering services and the other for urban traffic control—will not be remaining with the unit. So, again, we have an indication of the way in which the teams are breaking up.
There are also a number of difficulties about maintaining an adequate joint committee system. Again using the example of West Yorkshire, I understand that the agreements range from one-year contracts to seven-year contracts. In the field of engineering and traffic control, the contract is for a period of five years. Again, this presents a degree of uncertainty to staff who might feel that they are secure for one, two, three or five years, but beyond that there 446 is no security that the joint service will continue, which inevitably leads to problems affecting the timescale of projects as well as problems affecting the staff.
The Select Committee recommended local authorities who had been innovative in the field of science and techonology to patent their innovations; and, in the case of West Yorkshire, we saw three examples of innovation on which the authority had taken out a patent. These innovations are now under the control of a private company which the county set up because, first, under the local government law it was not itself entitled to sell its services beyond local government; and, secondly, it wanted to preserve some continuity in these fields. But the question arises: to whom is this private company now accountable? There is no county authority, there is no joint committee, and I understand that there is even some doubt as to whether it will be permissible for the company to continue. I should like to ask the Minister what he sees as the future for such organisations.
So those are very real problems which joint committees responsible for joint services within a county area are coming up against. The committee felt that in the absence of a more formal structure, which could, perhaps, deal more effectively with some of these problems, the impetus of the development of science and technology would bring local authorities closer together and cause them to co-operate more—to co-operate in the provision of technical services, to co-operate in the provision of research, to which the noble Earl has again referred, and to co-operate in the area of training, particularly mid-career training, which will be essential if local government is to continue to provide a worthwhile career. The whole thrust of the report has been not only to look at the achievements of local government in the field of science and technology, but to try to assess the way forward in the light of the difficulties that were experienced by the reorganisation of local government last year.
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ Baroness Stedman
My Lords, perhaps I may join the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, in expressing my thanks to our chairman for the very able way in which he introduced our report today, and also for his very wise guidance throughout the many sittings of the committee. I certainly appreciated the opportunity given to me to serve on that committee and of meeting the witnesses and visiting local authorities. But as our chairman has said, the local authority associations did not appear to see it as their duty to disseminate information. That appeared to be left more to the officers' societies and, at the time, your Select Committee felt that the individual authorities and associations ought to be setting up these special sub-committees for science and technology, which have already been referred to.
I have been talking to some of my friends in the shire counties and I have to say that, on reflection, they feel that so many support service interests are involved that they would prefer something more like our Select Committee being set up—perhaps a non-executive review committee—which would carry out a full review, would report and would then disband, because they feel that this method would perhaps enable more 447 radical ideas to be discussed, that some of the service committees might see it as rather less threatening and that the authorities themselves would not then be cluttered up with sub-committees on every topic that from time to time became of interest to the authority. But no doubt this is a contrary view to that of our committee which will be put to the appropriate places in due course.
Another point on which I should like to touch is that their authorities are finding that they are running up against limitations of the law in trying to exploit and sell their services. They believe that our recommendation needs a lot more consideration and a lot more work doing on it, because they feel that perhaps the law may have to be amended or even eased before they can do those things that we want. Cambridgeshire, my own county, is particularly concerned about this. The noble Baroness, Lady David, has much more up-to-date information on it than I have and I am sure will be giving it to the House this afternoon.
We also in the course of our deliberations interviewed LAMSAC, who reminded us of the change in their funding over the past two years. Only one-third of their income now comes from the local authorities and two-thirds of it comes from consultancy fees, from the sale of software, from organising seminars, and so on and they are taking a much more commercial approach towards the whole business. They believe that the different circumstances have not detracted from the level of service which they offer to the local authorities.
The ADC suggested that the service provided was good, but there appeared to be mixed views among the larger shire counties, and the metropolitan areas; and the Scottish local authority associations have withdrawn their financial support from LAMSAC. But it was the opinion of your committee that, in present circumstances, LAMSAC is now unable to meet its original aims of assisting local government clients. On the other hand, your committee wholeheartedly approved of the Department of Trade and Industry office automation experiment and we should like to see this extended by the Government who could seize the opportunity to speed up the introduction of information technology by demonstration projects and by pump priming for software development and for similar initiatives. As we talked to witnesses and went around the country, there were obvious problems with the compatibility of computer systems, though my impression was that most of the authorities were interested in establishing and extending information technology. But the training of users has been and is a problem in that local government salary scales cannot compete with industry and good, trained computer operators are in great demand.
I believe there is a move towards collaboration between authorities on the growth of powerful microcomputers and small main-frame computers together with more packaged software, which means that each authority can now consider having its own computing capability. But that makes it even more essential that they should have compatibility of equipment within a wider county area to enable the proper interchange of data. We did have a serious 448 complaint from the Association of County Councils on the dissemination of information about research documents coming from Government departments. The Government decide which shall be published and then they are usually sent to Her Majesty's Stationery Office. If they in turn put too high a price tag on the publication, the authorities, these days, cannot afford to buy it. Mr. Robinson, who was one of the witnesses of the Association of County Councils, told us that once upon a time Government used to say, "This piece of research has been done. You will get a free copy and the rest you will buy". He went on to say rather wistfully that this does not happen so much now because there is a fairly strong edict that circulars are a waste of money. That is why the dissemination of research now goes to the county authorities via their officers' societies.
The evidence of the Royal Institute of British Architects also expressed a concern, which was shared by members of your committee, that the present and future levels of joint services and collaboration on research between local authorities should have been very pertinent to the consideration of the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC. The RIBA and the members of your committee believe that the various units providing the scientific and technical services within the metropolitan counties and the GLC ought to have been retained intact. Your committee also believe that fragmentation and dispersal of the accumulated experience and data within these units would cause a loss which could take several decades to make good. We considered that it would be uneconomical and wasteful of both financial and manpower resources to allow these teams to disappear completely. The services could only be impaired and the effectiveness reduced if smaller units were established within every borough and district council.
The scientific advice units in the metropolitan counties and the GLC and the land survey and reclamation units are in the same position. Will the boroughs and districts really be able to carry out this work effectively as it has been done in the past, without the expertise and the financial support of the metropolitan counties? Under the Local Government Bill 1985 some of the service responsibilities passed to the residuary bodies which will be wound up in five years' time. Can I ask the Minister what provision has been made so far by those residuary bodies, and what is going to happen in five years' time? How are the residuary bodies dealing with the matters, and what can the Minister tell us about their proposals to date? As the noble Baroness has said, your committee were asked to prepare an interim report before the Local Government Bill was before the House and to make our considerations. We made recommendations but unfortunately this did not change the stance of the Government. In just nine weeks before abolition I believe that we have a right—if not a duty—to satisfy ourselves as to what looks like happening in those areas of our concern.
It seems to me that the Government are standing idly by and there is little knowledge of what the residuary bodies are doing to smooth the transition from the metropolitan authorities and the GLC to the boroughs. We argued for hours and days and even weeks on the 1985 Bill. We argued that it had been 449 hastily conceived and that much of it would be impracticable. I believe that in many areas of science and technology—in the scientific and technical services, in a strategic role for transport, in highways and traffic control, in waste management and disposal, in land reclamation and countryside projects and in information and research—too little has been achieved, and in some fields I regret to say that I think the changeover is going to be quite chaotic and can only be to the detriment of the ratepayers. In all the uncertainty of what the future holds it is a tribute to the staff that their loyalty and morale has held up and I hope that this House will be among those who will recognise it.
I want to look at the fate of these specialist teams of the kind which interested your Select Committee, and I want to draw the attention of the Minister and the House to the very worrying state of affairs. I am going to use illustrations from the metropolitan counties, and from Greater Manchester in particular since that seems, like West Yorkshire, to be one of the areas that have been trying to make arrangements for their specialist teams. But even the Greater Manchester arrangements fall lamentably short of what is needed to maintain the forward looking and innovative work that they have been doing. Consider the scientific and technological services allied to countryside planning, to the reclamation of derelict land, to research and information, to mineral extraction and to waste disposal.
I have already tabled a Question for Written Answer on how the Secretary of State sees Section 7(2) of the 1985 Act progressing and asking when we may expect that report, so I shall not enlarge on that this afternoon. The countryside units in Greater Manchester have used to the full the scientific services that have been available to them. Now that work passes to the districts, and in this, as with obligations, co-operation to one lead district is not working. I am not "knocking" the districts for taking a parsimonious view of their future responsibilities because they are concerned about the future revenue and capital funding of these services and the financial consequences to them. The rate support grant has yet again demonstrated that the grant system is a lottery with violent and arbitrary changes in grant for the district councils. Your committee commented that resources are short and are unlikely to improve. The Association of District Councils believes that funding in the field of research and development is going to be even more difficult unless some government can devise a simpler and more stable distribution for the future.
There is also a growing realisation that the reclamation of derelict land and the promoting of countryside projects will now have to take their place in the queue for resources for housing, social services, and so on. The relevant scientific and technical expertise of the metropolitan counties' countryside projects is going to be lost without positive co-operation on the part of the district councils which now inherit those functions. In all the metropolitan counties, if the districts do not take over this work, we are going to lose the expertise and the experience that has been put together during the past decade.
Your committee were satisfied, from their visits to West Yorkshire and to Greater Manchester, that there 450 was a case for the continuation of specialist teams on land reclamation and similar projects within the metropolitan areas. We were all impressed by the very substantial inroads that had been made into the wastelands left by the coal mining and industrial decline, but at this moment it looks as if that work is going to be a total casualty. In Greater Manchester the districts have dispensed with the services of the joint reclamation team, resulting in a major dislocation to their programme of work and a loss of the wider perspective of the area of substantial expertise and experience. In the West Midlands, South Yorkshire and Mersyside there were no proposals to keep the skill teams together. It is sad to see major areas of important work collapsing and irreplaceable expertise being just pushed aside.
In our report we considered the scale of services to be provided. We looked at research and information and we agreed (I quote from paragraph 4.23) that:The scale of services has to be appropriate to present-day needs… The increasing complexity and range of science and technology make large scale operations more necessary".Section 88 of the 1985 Act allows metropolitan district councils to do that if two-thirds of them agree that the funding can come from all the districts in the area according to population. That could lead to research and information units being maintained. Alas! it is not so. In Greater Manchester the co-ordinating committee will maintain such a unit but at less than half the size of the present metropolitan team, and therefore they are unable to maintain the current level of service.
Information could continue to be collected for formulation of policy, not only by district councils but also for central Government and other governmental and private sector bodies. But the proposed unit will be split away from the formulation of policy and will have nothing to do with advising on policy and with the best way to deliver the services that local government needs. Information technology will be separated from those who are reliant and dependent upon it. That runs totally counter to the advice given by your Lordships' committee.
Research and information extends not only to town planning but also to transport modelling, to urban traffic control, to highway design, to refuse disposal, and so on. In Greater Manchester there now seems little chance that those extremely desirable connections will be maintained. That means that instead there will be collection of inconsistent data, potential duplication of work, and above all a paucity of policy development. That must be so, with only a partial view of the wider issues of the area.
In the other metropolitan areas the situation appears even worse, with Merseyside hoping that the residuary body will do something about it. There is nothing happening in South Yorkshire. Possibly there will be a very small Tyne and Wear team based on Newcastle, while in the West Midlands there may be a planning and transport data team under Solihull Council but that team will be forbidden to stray into policy; indeed, its very existence depends on the current rate support grant allocation.
The same problems apply to minerals and waste planning. The wide markets for mineral and the wide 451 catchments for waste disposal sites demand more than a local approach. Greater Manchester has made modest progress with a small unit being maintained centrally under Salford Council, but there is worry in Greater Manchester about the adoption of the minerals local plan for the next decade.
A very great deal of technical work has gone into that plan, which will be on deposit by the end of March. This morning, I asked the Minister's office if it might be possible for him to tell the House at the end of this debate—or if not, by correspondence later—that that work will not be wasted and that the plan is likely to be approved very soon.
In the other metropolitan counties the outlook is bleak. In South Yorkshire there is a joint committee but no joint team to advise it. In West Yorkshire the picture looks equally depressing. There are no joint arrangements within Merseyside. There is just a glimmer of hope in the West Midlands that a limited role might be adopted by Walsall. The emerging picture overall is one of indecision, of late decision, or of a determination to go it alone—thus fragmenting the whole effectiveness of that very vital work.
Your Lordships' Select Committee was rightly worried about the short period available for transferring the vital services from the metropolitan counties to the districts. With the transfer only nine weeks away, the emerging picture is one of chaos, of hastily-made and ill-considered decisions, and of a complete inability to sort matters out in the time that is now left. Local councils are fearful of the consequences of making specialised arrangements. The rate support grant formula has a negative influence on the retention and development of specialised work, and the financial restraints on local government are biting hard.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Baroness while she is speaking on the subject of the rate support grant, it is not clear to me from reading the report whether or not the committee was aware, when it reported, of the impending change from target to grant related expenditure assessment as the main means of controlling local government expenditure. Can the noble Baroness say what the committee's view was of that matter while it was deliberating?
§ Baroness Stedman
My Lords, so far as I know, there was no discussion on the rate support grant, and the committee did not know of the proposed changes.
The very fear of those financial consequences is bound to lead to a restrictive view of the work to be adopted and a shying away from any innovative or non-statutory task. In our report, we comment that innovation is not cheap and that the present circumstances were likely to stifle it altogether. I see a very real danger that collective decisions on the future of the services will be dealt with in the same way as current decisions on how to run the service after 1st April—which seems to be a case of reducing everything to the lowest common denominator, entailing a complete lack of vision or perspective, and an inability to seize the opportunities that present themselves.
452 If we are to have policies then they must be well grounded, and the information collected should and must be relevant to the needs of the policymakers. Yet we find ourselves on the brink of losing so much expertise and experience, leading to a very real cut in the level of service in terms of both quality and quantity. We cannot ignore value for money in the quality and quantity of service provided. Your Lordships' committee recognised that and recommended an extension of assessment methods to functions that make major demands on scientific services.
In the current situation it seems to me that the residuary bodies should not be taking such a passive role as they appear to be. I understand that some have not yet appointed any staff although there are only nine weeks to go. In Merseyside, where the residuary body did start to show an interest and became involved, the chairman was removed by the Secretary of State. I could be uncharitable and speculate on whether the activity and the sacking are linked. There must be a moral there somewhere, but I have not sorted it out.
I commend the report of the Select Committee as a fine and serious in-depth study of some of the problems in local government scientific and technological services across a very wide spectrum. If they are given the right help, encouragement and leadership from central government then our local authorities could have the capacity to react to future demands. I will conclude by quoting from our earlier interim report:Economic, efficient and forward looking services demand excellence, integration and continuity. The existing services should be improved, not by being dismembered but by being encouraged to progress. Centres of excellence are slow to develop but easy to destroy".
§ 3.58 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, in addressing your Lordships' House this afternoon I must first thank the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and his colleagues—many of whom are taking part in this debate—for the hard work and integrity that they have put into writing the report. Secondly, I thank the noble Earl himself for bringing the report to our attention this afternoon and for giving me, among others, an opportunity to comment upon its conclusions. Thirdly, I must declare an interest. It is not a commercial or financial interest but a professional interest in this matter, as a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry's parliamentary and legal committee.
I will say just a few words about the Royal Society of Chemistry. When I was a young man there were a number of learned societies—the Chemical Society, the Faraday Society, and so on—that were simply concerned with the study of the subject and with publishing journals in which new results were circulated to the world at large. There was also a professional body—the Institute of Chemistry—which was not a learned society but a professional institution concerned with educational standards and professional behaviour.
I served on the council of that institute for some time, having registered as a student in it 52 years ago, which is quite a long time in a professional career. It set the standards. In those days you could not be 453 considered as having the credentials for a public analyst, for example, and to carry out his functions unless you were the possessor of an Institute of Chemistry diploma in chemistry, food and drugs. Of course, everything evolves with time and the credentials are perhaps not exactly the same as they were when I was young.
Some years ago all these bodies came together to form one body—the Royal Society of Chemistry—so the chemical profession now follows the standard pattern of the engineering institutions—the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the civil engineers, nuclear engineers, all of them—which from time immemorial have done the combined work of a learned society and a professional institution. I used to sit on the public relations committee of the Chemical Society, and I am now on the parliamentary and legal committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
The question of whether I speak in my own name or as an advocate for their views is academic because we speak with one voice certainly in welcoming this report, and also in regretting that the local authority scientific units have been thrust into the political arena. Politics—with which, on these Cross-Benches, I am not concerned—tends to be preoccupied, in part at least, with the relations between employers and employees; with capital and labour, and so on; how society is organised in this respect as opposed to how it ought to be organised, and similar matters. However, professional men do not quite see it that way. As a professional chemist I think of my relationship as that of consultant to client, just as a doctor would think of his relationship to his patient as a relationship between consultant and client, and as an advocate in the courts would think of himself as an advocate in relation to his client.
It is wrong to think of professional men as superior kinds of being. They are not. They are simply different kinds of being. They ought not to be flying around between Front Benches armed with battledores and being treated as shuttlecocks. Therefore, I first plead that local authority science must be given a settled environment. Without it, it cannot work adequately. We must not be made the shuttlecocks in between the rival battledores. Scientists, like other people, need a reasonable allowance of security of employment and funding in order to carry out their work. From this point of view we all welcome the news which came through last Friday that the London residuary body is to take over the GLC scientific services for a period. This will give people time to make arrangements with successor authorities. However, in regarding it as a deliverance and a breathing space, I have to add that it is not yet, from the professional man's point of view, a victory. I ask the Government whether there is any more information available about the future than was released on Friday.
Corresponding to that we are concerned, and I am concerned, that the future of the Merseyside county analyst is still uncertain. I understand that an arrangement had been made which fell through. It is very unfortunate that this should turn the future of local authority science into a highly political issue, which none of us wants.
454 Centralisation gives the advantages of economies of scale, of opportunities for inter-disciplinary work and better career prospects for the staff. Decentralisation can lead to under-funding, inadequate resources and isolation and elimination of the career structure offered by a local authority service to the public. Scientists in local authority employment want to think of themselves as public servants, giving a public service. Local authority science is an area in which science comes very close to the public, and let that always be so. It is important that scientists in this area should be made aware of the public interest, because that is how they themselves are regarded and look on it with pride.
On the question of scale, and its economies, everything has an optimum size. Some scientific experiments entail very expensive apparatus indeed. Unless it is going to be used regularly its installation would represent an uneconomic investment. There is no reason why consultants who possess these expensive facilities should not be engaged in order to render an economic service to local government. For example, there may be electro microscopes installed in universities where the professor of physics or chemistry who is in charge of such a faculty could add his services to those provided as a consultant, in return for a suitable fee.
I remember, back in my own career as a chemist, in one branch of chemistry I had the immeasurable support of colleagues in other branches of chemistry to that in which I was working. I was in a steelworks and my terms of reference were to try and produce an alloy steel which would stand up inside a gas turbine for not less than one hour at 900 degrees centigrade. That was a far higher temperature than was contemplated in those days. I had the services, all run by equally well-qualified colleagues, of a melting shop, where new ingots could be made; a forge where they could be forged; heat treatment shops where I could get them heat treated; machine shops where I could machine test pieces; the creep laboratory was under m} own control; the chemical laboratory would extract the intermetallics from the matrix in which they were embedded to give them their creep-resistant properties; and the metallographic laboratory which examined the internal structure of ingots with the assistance of the X-ray department.
That is how one works professionally inside an environment with the support of one's colleagues. It is right that local government science should be organised in such a way that scientists have the support of their colleagues. I regret that it was necessary in the first instance to compile this report, because of the crisis which led to it, but it is an excellent report and the thanks of this House and of my profession are due to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and his colleagues for the work they have done.
§ 4.7 p.m.
The Earl of Bessborough
My Lords, I join with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in thanking my noble friend Lord Cranbrook on his most comprehensive report: 125 pages in the first volume and 510 pages of oral and written evidence, in close print, in the second. It is certainly an impressive and stimulating study for, as we all know, local government touches directly the 455 lives of everyone in many different ways. Indeed, a very wide variety of applied science and technology makes vital contributions to the provision of local services. In my view, the tradition in this country of taking independent initiatives at the forefront of technological advance must be maintained.
I congratulate my noble friend and the committee for identifying key issues. My congratulations can be even warmer because I was not myself a member of my noble friend's sub-committee; therefore, I am not in any sense partially congratulating myself! However, I was a member for several years of the main Select Committee and of a number of its other sub-committees as well as of European Community sub-committees of the same kind; including, for example, that on information technology which is now an important service in local government.
The key issues identified in the report are, as I see it, the need to ensure maintenance of high calibre staff specialist services; the need for each authority to keep constantly under review its application of science and technology; the importance of local authorities collaborating to secure greater efficiency, and the essential role of organisations representing local government as a whole.
Many important recommendations are made in this very valuable report covering, as my noble friend has said, highways and traffic management, different aspects of environmental health, hazardous waste disposal, the licensing and inspection of zoos, information technology and computing services, as well as research, innovation and the dissemination of information.
However, I must confess to a certain sense of unease—not too deep an unease, but a certain sense of unease—at the thrust of some suggestions in the report. While one can readily appreciate—and I personally would warmly support—the eminently reasonable motives lying behind recommendations such as the creation of special sub-committees and increased involvement by government departments in this particular area of local government, I only wonder whether we should not think very carefully about the general implications of such developments. I think we need to be cautious about too ready assumptions that central subvention and institutional tinkering are appropriate answers in a field where local initiatives and rapid adaptability must remain essential requirements.
I hope my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale will confirm that our main concern must be that the increased role proposed for central government will undoubtedly increase the number of civil servants and lead to increased form-filling, and indeed annoy local government which does not like or readily accept central government departments meddling in its work.
I think that the most important point to recognise is that authorities do provide efficient, appropriate and cost-efficient services for their local communities. It is they who know how to do that best, and it is they who should be accountable locally for their decisions. In my view, and I feel it would be the view of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, it could well be counter- 456 productive to increase central government scrutiny and intervention.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, if the noble Earl would allow me to intervene, I certainly feel great sympathy with what he is saying, but I am not quite sure at which particular part of the report he is pointing his finger when he talks about greater central government intervention. It seems to me that it does not really point in that direction very much.
The Earl of Bessborough
My Lords, as I see it, it is fairly precise. If one looks at particular passages, i.e., paragraphs 4(5) to (7), there is certainly there a reference to the alleged fall of direct concern by central government. At any rate, as regards those danger signals which were referred to by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lockwood and Lady Stedman, and indeed to a certain extent by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, that is to say matters concerning financial constraints, the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties, and the alleged fall of direct concern by central government, I think I should recall that of course the Government's abolition policy was well known before the Select Committee settled on this question. The Government emphasised throughout the abolition debates that their objective was that decisions should devolve to successors, and they set up a framework for them to do this either individually or collectively, wherever necessary through co-ordinating committees in London and in each of the metropolitan counties. Indeed, it was in your Lordships' House that an amendment was agreed to strengthen the role of the residuary bodies.
I believe that successors have generally given very serious consideration to the specialist services run by the county councils, and I am personally satisfied—certainly it is the case in my part of the country—that after initial difficulties the co-ordinating committees have been effective in carrying out their responsibilities.
Concerning the loss of career prospects in local government, I cannot accept that they will be seriously affected by abolition. Local government services are there to meet the needs of the authority and the ratepayers. It is for them to decide their staffing according to those needs. There are, of course, clear links with the future of county-wide facilities, and I understand that a number of metroplitan county laboratories are being retained on a county-wide basis. If there are economies of scale then these should be preserved, but in my view the decision on retention or otherwise must be for the successor bodies.
As regards the future of the GLC's scientific branch, I understand that the London Co-ordinating Committee at its meeting last December agreed that a central scientific unit should be retained under the wing of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority. I hope that my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale can confirm this.
In regard to government funding after abolition, I believe that the Government have stuck to their undertaking that successor authorities receive all—and like my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, I emphasise 457 "all"—the block grant that the abolition authorities would have received had they continued to exist and spent at the same level. Successors, therefore, are in no worse a position than the abolition authorities to support scientific and specialist services, and indeed the rate support grant settlement provides for a significant flow of grant into London.
Finally, in so far as staffing is concerned, I am sure that my noble friend will agree that it is a matter for successors to decide whether to take on all the existing staff of any of the specialist services which are being retained. Perhaps my noble friend can amplify this point.
Whatever implied criticism may have been contained in my few remarks, I should again like to congratulate most warmly my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and his committee on a tremendously useful and valuable report and recommendations, which draw attention to local government services which do not perhaps always receive the recognition and honour which is their due.
In the current issue of Link- Up, the magazine of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the association's vice-president and general secretary, Professor Douglas Everett, a Fellow of the Royal Society, draws attention to the importance of enhancing the public's awareness of the part that science and technology play in improving the quality of life in the whole community. As a recent report by the Royal Society stressed:everybody needs some understanding of science, its accomplishments and its limitations.The Select Committee's report is certainly a most important contribution to increasing this public understanding.
§ 4.19 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and the team that he had round him. He has produced a report of vital importance not only to technology and science but also to the workings of local government. The Select Committee report shows that local government services in science and technology are good and in some cases excellent. That has also been said by noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon, so I hope that the Minister will add his tribute to the work that the local authorities have done when he replies to the debate. As the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, said, local authorities do not always get credit for the work that they do, and this is an occasion when the Government should add their tribute to them.
I agree with other noble Lords who have spoken that the tight financial targets within which local authorities will have to operate in the future may slacken the pace of innovation. We must recognise clearly that science and technology have constantly to adopt innovation. That is what they are all about: progress through innovation. With the formation of the GLC and metropolitan counties, those young authorities quickly moved into the new technologies. Many of them have created leading centres of excellence. Unfortunately in April they are all to be 458 dissipated. As the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said, it is most unfortunate that because of government reorganisation science and technology are being made a political football. That is not the way for them to prosper. But there are a few weeks to go before abolition. There may still be government rethinking about those centres. As has been said, there is still considerable uncertainty about future arrangements.
It is also perfectly clear that some of the major scientific and technical units are in jeopardy, and the people who work in them know that full well. I wish to dwell on only one service. I want to draw attention to a matter that I raised during the debate on the abolition Bill, and that is accident prevention and the accident analysis teams. On page 45 of the report it says that what may have been sufficient for the provision of services 20 years ago is no longer adequate. That applies particularly to accident investigation. That is a very different operation from sticking pins into a map on an office wall, which was the practice before 1944. It is now a scientific procedure.
I think that all noble Lords will agree that road accidents which involve people, and which are often fatal and in many cases serious, cause much personal grief and suffering. Besides that, which is perhaps the worst aspect of a road accident, there are the economic costs, which are well known to the Department of Transport. Those costs are astronomical. To lessen that personal tragedy and the increasing amount spent on hospitalisation, general medical care and insurance, it is necessary to prevent as many accidents as possible.
In the West Midlands, which is perhaps the area that I know best, I understand that the county team is a multi-disciplinary team consisting of eight people. They maintain an efficient accident analysis service which is nationally recognised. That small team is often called on by the Government to analyse many matters, including the effect of wearing seat belts. That analysis forms the basis of remedial action, whether by education or by engineering solutions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, gave information on the reorganisation in the West Midlands. As she rightly said, the central team, which is to be known as the Joint Planning and Transportation Data Team—"deita" or "dahta," whichever one says: has been set up in the Solihull district. It is the co-ordinating authority for planning and highway matters. But, as the noble Baroness said, its terms of reference limit the team essentially to holding the databank, running the transportation model and maintaining traffic volume and accident databanks, the accident figures being provided by the police in the West Midlands. But the collection and detailed analysis of the data will be carried out by the individual districts in the West Midlands. Each will recruit its own little organisation, and that will lead to a multiplicity of teams and a dispersal of expertise and development interest.
I am led to understand that only what is called the trend analysis will be carried out in the future, which really means the collection of annual accident totals and comparing them with those of the previous years. 459 That will do nothing to prevent accidents. The existing county team in the West Midlands will be split up. I understand that the joint data team will include four of its members. The future of the people engaged in accident analysis and possible solutions is undecided.
We need data on the whole picture of road accidents in order to carry out the development work and use site studies to try to obviate accidents, and it is, therefore, important to have complete interaction with a computer. The multi-discipline team needs to work together and with the available technology, with cross-fertilisation of ideas, in order to decide what preventive measures to take to cut down the number of road accidents. It is important, if the problem of accident analysis is to be properly examined, that the data to be analysed are sufficient to be useful. The West Midlands, a completely built-up urban area with motorway intersections, is able to provide a sample of traffic and pedestrian movement of sufficient size. This is essential if one is to produce any worthwhile scientific results.
I have used the West Midlands as one example while other noble Lords have spoken about other areas. The splitting up of a very small team will obviously destroy its effectiveness. It will make for inefficiency. But the worst result, perhaps, is that the use of technology in accident prevention is nullified. That must cause all of us serious concern.
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Lord Hunter of Newington
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for the manner in which he presented the case to the House. The Select Committee recommended, as already stated, that all local authorities should set up a science and technology sub-committee and each association of authorities, also, a science and technology committee with functions related to the information of elected members, the identification of research needs and application, and the improvement of scientific and technical performances. The dilemma of many of the very good scientific and technological services of the metropolitan counties and the GLC is that they have not been the focus of anyone's serious attention. The Select Committee's work has shown this to be evident.
There is considerable danger that many highly skilled scientific and technical teams, with extremely high reputations, will be dissipated—this at a time when the world of local government needs to be pressing further into science and technology for the improvement and more efficient delivery of its services and, incidentally, to cut costs. Local authorities have often lacked the proper management and political structures to succeed in placing greater emphasis on the enhancement of the role of new technology. They have mainly had traditional departmental and committee structures. That has been the backcloth against which the services have been developed in the last decade.
However, some local authorities are beginning to challenge this in relation to new technological developments. The Select Committee report draws 460 attention to the need for local authorities to have a clear strategy and a policy towards new developments as well as the encouragement of new structures within local government and their three associations. So a new updated structure is really necessary to stimulate development of services. Fortunately, the world of local government management is not static. It is changing, probably at a more rapid pace than at any time in the recent past. Innovations in management are being developed; new attitudes and values are also developing. This can be supported by several developments, and I shall mention some of them.
There is a growing emphasis on management skills rather than purely professional skills in relation to appointments to senior posts in many local authorities. A number of chief executive posts have been advertised in the last few years in which the emphasis has been on changed management and where posts have been open to the private sector and other candidates from the non-public sector. Such appointments, it is true, have usually resulted in those with public service backgrounds being appointed in open competition. But the point, I emphasise, is the seeking out by such local authorities of those with strong managerial skills.
The recent publication on 16th January of the document, Good Management in Local Government: Successful Practice and Action, produced by the Audit Commission, the Local Government Training Board and the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham, is important. This details some of the ways in which approaches to management in local government are changing for the better and gives a wide range of examples of good management practice within local authorities. This is the necessary ingredient for the development of scientific services.
The search for innovation by a number of authorities in terms of different forms of service delivery was noted by the Select Committee. Local authorities in Britain have tended to follow the pattern of self-sufficiency in service provision. By that, I mean that, where a statutory duty is placed on a local authority to carry out a service, it generally provides this by direct in-house staffing and resources. This picture is changing in a number of ways, including contracting out services which are insufficiently provided for by in-house services, developing more joint public-private sector ventures, extending forms of collaboration with other local authorities and other public agencies, creating private companies to carry out work previously undertaken by local government, or as a means of marketing services, and joint ventures involving the creation of packaged programmes of action based on the contributions of a range of bodies and sectors.
This summary portrays a more experimental and innovative style of local government. This development has taken place against a very traditional self-sufficiency type of service dominance. But, unfortunately, the abolition of metropolitan government has produced a reaction that has again brought out a strong individual local authority self-sufficiency model—a reassertion of, perhaps through a feeling of insecurity, and a tendency to return to, the old type. Change this, my Lords, and the way is clear! 461 Undoubtedly, the main concern in this period of reaction is the limited scope of formal co-operation and joint working arrangements for the services. In particular, the districts are determined to keep as little as possible working centrally. Secondly, there is no long-term certainty that co-ordination arrangements will continue. Thirdly, there is a strong likelihood of disagreement in future between the districts over maintenance and central teams. Fourthly, and tragically, the general tendency of the co-ordination arrangements is to produce the lowest common denominator in decisions. In fact, these decisions have to be consensus decisions.
There are signs that the central Government possibly wish to place greater emphasis on local services delivered through appointed panels or administered by quango-type management. The joint boards for police, fire and transport, as successors in the running of three of the services presently run by the metropolitan counties, reflect this approach.
Undoubtedly, the main concern is the specialist services which have to be provided at county level for them to function at all. Unfortunately, as I have said, the district councils take a similar view to that of the Government—that as little as possible of the county council should survive. They do not seem to be heeding the views spelt out loud and clear by your Lordships' Select Committee that in the development and application of scientific services flexibility is required to produce the main solutions which meet a particular situation. Flexibility means good management.
Although central services like the analyst's laboratory and the hazardous waste disposal units will be maintained as single teams, major initiatives in derelict land reclamation and the use of highway design and traffic engineering are very much at risk. It could be that the residents of the metropolitan areas will have a lower level and a lower standard of service than that enjoyed elsewhere in the country. In the West Midlands there have been particular difficulties in the police joint board. This joint board was not within the remit of the Select Committee report. But the fact that disagreement can take place on a statutory body augurs badly for informal co-ordination arrangements.
I mentioned earlier the lowest common denominator of consensus decisions. This has a familiar ring. If one reads the arguments produced by this Government that general managers are required in the health service to manage services—arguing against their previous decision of the early 1970s of consensus management teams and indicating that consensus management teams have been a failure in the National Health Service—it seems that the prospect of consensus arrangements for services in local government may face a similar fate, although, as I have said, there are definite signs of reorganisation of management and a departure from local government's traditional attitudes.
It seems that the reorganisation of local government, although it may have been very desirable for many important political reasons, is, in regard to provision of modern scientific services for the people of the metropolitan counties, in danger of destroying 462 the substantial progress which has been made in the development of these services in the last decade.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the committee on its excellent informative report, and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, on the way in which he presented it. I want to confine my own remarks to the matter of waste disposal, which is something that has not been discussed a great deal today and is something about which I am very concerned because of its environmental impact.
The establishment of waste disposal authorities in 1974 has brought improvement overall. However, as the committee said in several places in the report, there is still considerable diversity of standards between areas and between different parts of the country. This is particularly significant when dealing with hazardous waste. Speaker after speaker has said that it is essential that authorities should be large enough to support the expertise necessary for their various functions. This, of course, is even more so in the case of waste disposal, particularly hazardous waste.
I do not propose again to go over the evils of abolition, because that has been covered by a fair number of speakers today. However, I should like to make two points. One is about a letter which I received only this morning. I should like to have an answer from the Minister on this; or at least a comment. The letter tells me that the new London Waste Regulatory Authority has not been given planning powers over waste disposal sites. This is a power which is enjoyed by the counties at the moment, and certainly is still enjoyed by the GLC. As the letter goes on to say:This could lead to problems as individual boroughs, while persuaded of the need for new sites (whether actual landfill sites or, more likely, transfer stations …) refuse to allow permission for the development in their area".Can the Minister tell me whether that is so? Is planning power not given to the waste regulatory authority? If that is so, what on earth is the thinking behind it?—because it seems a very strange decision.
The other brief reference to the abolition problems relates to the regulations which came out on 5th December and which set out to deal with the waste regulation and disposal authorities which did not come to voluntary agreements in the metropolitan areas before the appointed day for so doing. It seems to me on, I admit, not yet a very thorough look at the regulations, that they are very little better than the proposals made by the Government during the progress of the abolition Bill, which were condemned on all sides in this House. I do not know whether the Minister would like to comment on that today, or whether he wants to leave that for another day when we can probably give him the opportunity by other means. However, it seems to me that they are a very poor answer indeed to all the arguments which were made here.
Returning to the need for expertise in waste disposal authorities, it is obvious that they should have adequate numbers of inspectors to enforce licence and planning site conditions. Poor quality waste disposal 463 operators are still flourishing, and, because these poor operators can make low disposal charges, responsible operators are being squeezed and therefore standards generally are being lowered. Central Government could help by changes in legislation. For example, the Act on the control of pollution could be strengthened to make breaches of licensed conditions offences in their own right, which I understand they are not at the moment. Waste disposal authorities should be able to consider an applicant's qualifications and previous conduct when determining site licence applications, which again I understand they cannot do at the moment.
The Hazardous Waste Inspectorate, in its first report in June 1985, drew attention to many deficiencies in the operation of the present system and mentioned in particular the need for enforcement of site licensing conditions and the difficulties caused by the weakness of Section 6 of the Control of Pollution Act. I have not seen any Government comment on that report. I wonder whether the Minister can say whether any action has been taken on the many points which were raised by the Hazardous Waste Inspectorate; and, if so, where one can find it if the Minister cannot give it to me today?
It is also worth mentioning at this point the need to end Crown immunity in National Health Service establishments in regard to waste disposal. The noxious waste disposed of by National Health Service establishments is equally as hazardous as much industrial waste. Considerable problems are caused by unsatisfactory disposal. I wonder whether the Minister feels that there is a case for ending Crown immunity in these establishments on the question of waste disposal even if we cannot apparently unseat it in any other respect in Crown establishments. It is becoming an outdated system that is falling into disrepute week by week. There seems to me no reason why National Health Service establishments should not be subject to the same control as any other waste producer.
Consistency of controls between waste producers should be matched by consistency of standards between authorities. The hazardous waste inspectorate was disturbed by the wide enforcement disparity between different areas. The Select Committee was concerned to allow for local discretion in some areas of local authorities' responsibilities—and here the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, was quite eloquent. However, I feel that this should not be extended to the disposal of hazardous waste. The less scrupulous operator to whom I have referred earlier can too easily transfer his activities across the boundary to a more congenial disposal point. Disposal sites' costs must be low enough to ensure that licensed sites are used and yet high enough to provide an incentive for producers to reduce their waste output and also to cover the costs of adequate site standards.
I am greatly indebted to Mr. Mike Tassel, who is the engineer in charge of waste disposal in Cambridgeshire County Council and who has done an excellent job and can produce many excellent finished projects as examples if your Lordships ever want to see how waste disposal can be managed with benefit to the community.
464 He writes:All industries, especially those producing liquid wastes, should be encouraged to reduce their production of wastes".He points out that waste disposal authorities can offer advice to producers on how to do this. But he adds:However, because decisions will be taken on a purely commercial basis, it is unlikely that an industry could be persuaded to reduce a waste stream if this would increase costs unless some form of enforcement or incentive could be introduced".I wonder whether the Government have ever considered the idea of some sort of incentive for persuading waste producers to reduce their waste output, because this is how we shall have to tackle in future the ever-increasing amount of waste—hazardous and non-hazardous—with which we all have to deal. Again I should like to point out that in the planning stages of new developments and of the production of new products, the waste disposal authorities can give confidential advice and are very willing to do so.
We return to the role of central Government and the need for minimum standards to be set, backed by appropriate legislation. Central Government must also ensure that adequate financial provision is made for waste disposal, because hard-pressed local authorities could well see this service as one of low priority. It is not appealing in itself, and public awareness of the importance of proper control is only just emerging.
Waste disposal authorities already consult with neighbouring areas, with water authorities, and with waste producers. There are also national bodies for the various skills exercised in the authorities. It should therefore be possible to use this network to achieve agreement on a national standard. Unless we can achieve a national standard for waste disposal and the kind of mixture of controls and inducements which will make sure that waste disposal, especially hazardous waste disposal, is dealt with properly and in the interests of the community as a whole, we really shall not know what we are handing on to our children and our grandchildren.
The standards we apply today we think are good in the best cases. We have applied all the science we have at our disposal, and we are doing the best we can in the light of their findings. It is important, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said, that scientific teams should continue, and that they should continue in such a way that they are able to develop among themselves an initiative towards what they are doing, but that will not come if they are broken down into small units. The importance of the team in scientific research cannot be too highly emphasised.
Only through this approach will we be able to ensure that what we now take as good practice in fact remains good practice, and that we keep up to date with new developments in the kind of wastes we are having to deal with and in the kind of disposal that is necessary for them. I look forward to the answers from the Minister. If he does not have the answers today, may I ask that he will give them to me when he can?
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Butterworth
My Lords, I was not a member of this committee, and I should therefore like to thank 465 and congratulate my noble friend Lord Cranbrook upon an excellent report; a report which makes a valuable contribution in its analysis of, and exploration of, the importance of the scientific services of local authorities. My discussions with people in the shires and the districts have led me to think that some of the specific proposals of the report as to how local government should act in the future to develop these services may give rise to some division of view.
For example, the report sets considerable importance upon the influence of the larger authorities, and we have heard much this afternoon about the abolition of the metropolitan county councils. It is perhaps unfortunate that the report had to come out at the moment of time when the abolition was due to occur, for the abolition is bound to provoke a period of hesitation and uncertainty. It may be that the report, in its recommendations, has been adjusted for a situation which will turn out to be ephemeral and which will be corrected.
It seemed to me that there was a question of principle which lay behind that section of the report. Ideally how would we define what were the best boundaries that could be devised for a local authority? I had the impression from time to time that, because the report was caught at this moment of transition, it came very near to suggesting that the tail of the scientific services should wag the dog of the local authorities. Clearly when one is drawing the boundaries of local authorities ideally one should have an area which is a coherent area; an area, or conurbation, where people live and work. The services that will be provided will be more efficient and more cohesive if they are made available to an area of that kind where people live and work.
Perhaps I may for one moment not concentrate on the scientific services but think of the ordinary services of the local authority. As many of your Lordships will know I was the vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick in the West Midlands. When the chemist friends of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, succeeded in blowing up the chemistry laboratory, the rules forbade that we should ring up the fire station which was just down the road. We had to ring up Birmingham, who then made another call to the local fire station to release the fire services. The same with the ambulance. An ambulance was needed; Birmingham had to be telephoned, and the excellent person at the end of the telephone would frequently not know the name of the street that was being referred to, and frequently not know the district in Coventry.
Therefore, the general principle clearly ought to be that the boundaries of a local authority should be drawn up so that there is a coherence in the services providing for where people live and work. But having said that, the scientific services must be seen as an exception to that principle; for many of them, by their nature, must draw, if they are to be efficient, on an area larger than that of any single local authority.
Indeed, different scientific services may well need different areas if they are to be efficient. Some of the scientific services, if they are to be really efficient may well in the future need areas which may be larger than the existing metropolitan county council areas, 466 although of course in this respect I would admit that London is a clear exception. I do not think that we should be pessimistic about the ability of individual authorities to combine and produce the areas which are needed for the scientific services after the disappearance of the metropolitan authorities. Many local authorities are indeed beginning now to combine, where necessary, to produce the efficient set of services.
Perhaps I may quote again from the West Midlands. The Garrett's Green Laboratories are at present organised and run by the West Midlands county council, and it has recently been agreed that these laboratories will be taken over by the Birmingham district council and run by them on behalf of all the present district councils in the West Midlands. For those laboratories plans are well ahead to expand the services which the laboratories now provide. In addition to providing the statutory type of service for local authorities, the laboratories are planning to expand the service to industry and, no doubt, the industry-based services by increasing the total volume of business will ultimately improve the quality of service that will be offered to the local authorities.
If I may, I should like to deal with the question of the science and technology sub-committee which has been recommended. It is important that the scientific services should not be seen as an end in themselves. They exist to support the whole range of functions and responsibilities which the local authorities discharge. Science and technology are fundamental to that whole range of scientific services and therefore the science and technology should be seen to permeate the whole approach of officers and members to the provision of their different services. It is for this reason, I suspect, that many of those authorities may consider it to be unnecessary to set up a science and technology committee because this might be taken to imply that science and technology are for the local authorities an end in themselves rather than that the scientific services are an integral element in the main services which it is the function of local authorities to provide.
It may however be that there is one important exception. That is in the area of information technology. There may be a useful role for a specialist committee or sub-committee in that area. Computer services have often been seen as being primarily the responsibility of the treasurer for it was his office that originally derived the major benefit from the first installation of a computer. Now information technology has become all-pervasive in the organisation and it is necessary, or it may be necessary, to have some machinery to supervise the collection of information which comes from all sides in a local authority and some authorities have found it convenient to set up a committee to supervise their information systems. No longer is finance the principal beneficiary; but the possibility of sophisticated supervision and control in so many areas of local authority activity through the operation of information technology is now proving so promising that a sub-committee, if it has the terms of reference confined to the supervision and control which information technology can confer upon the local authority, may be the most helpful way of tackling the problem.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, we now come to the wind-up, but I do not intend to make a conventional wind-up speech today. Apart from anything else, it would be impossible! I leave that to the noble Lord the Minister on the Government Front Bench. In any case, this is not that sort of a debate.
The Committee was faced with an absolutely impossible task. The brief that it was given was totally incapable of being met in full and therefore we were only able to succeed by, first, focusing our activities on a small part of science and technology in local government. We were also only able to succeed by leaving our political hats outside the door, particularly during the earlier stages of our discussions, when the abolition Bill was before this House. I believe that we succeeded, although the Government Front Bench may not always have felt so. But there was within the committee, to anybody who observed it from outside, very little difference of view on any of the matters relating to the abolition Bill and we tried to leave party politics outside. The major reason that we succeeded, as so many people have said already, is because of the excellent chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, because of the work of our Clerks and the work of the specialist advisers, without any of whom this report would not have seen the light of day.
Many of the speeches today have dealt with the committee's contribution to the abolition debate. I do not want to expand on that any more. I think I can save about 10 minutes out of my speech by forgetting the abolition Bill, save only to take up a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, to the GLC. He was correct in saying that until last Friday it was anticipated that the science functions of the GLC were to be taken over by the London Fire and Civil Defence authority. Indeed, I had a considerable briefing to ask questions of the Minister as to the restrictions they were placing on the taking over of that authority in relation to the costs of the boroughs and so on. But I now understand that on Friday last it was decided that the London residuary body would take over these services. I cannot help looking back to those debates that we had on abolition and saying "We told you so!"
Members of the Committee from all sides of the House endeavoured to persuade the Government that the proper place, at least in the short term, to put those services was the residuary body. We were all accused, regardless of from which part of your Lordships' House we came, of trying to set up a new GLC. We said that we were not, but that is what we were accused of doing. Now, at the end of the day, and very late in the day, if I may say so, that seems to be where it is going. What a pity that the people in the scientific services in the GLC were not put in that position three months ago and given the security of tenure that they now have, even if it is limited only to five years. I hope the Minister will explain what the position is now, in case it has changed again, because it is absolutely crucial that we end the uncertainty for those people. There has been an enormous amount of discussion this afternoon on the need for keeping teams together and nowhere more so is that true than in Greater London. I hope that this means that the team of experts will be kept together and that some certainty can come from what the Government say this afternoon.
468 Let me now turn to the recommendations in this report rather than discussing any further the earlier report. First, the conclusions, and recommendation 5.1 is the umbrella under which everything else should be considered. Any hesitancies that we have, any conclusions that we come to, are covered by the umbrella of saying that,The overall level of scientific and technical expertise in local government is good and in some authorities it is excellent.I had no idea when I first started oh this committee how much science and technology there was in local government and of what a high standard it was. If no other message goes out from this report it should be a message of confidence that your Lordships' House and the Select Committee have in the competence and expertise of those people working in the scientific branches of local government.
The next recommendation 5.2, thatThere is a potential conflict between the case for diversity, emphasised by local government, and the citizen's right to uniform basic standards of service—is also self-evident. But this apparently is not self-evident to the Association of County Councillors. Noble Lords on the committee probably, like myself, will have received a letter from the Association of County Councillors, in which says:The conclusions and recommendations … have not yet been considered by the Association's Policy Committee, but are being discussed at present with those who advise the Association. I attach a note which sets out some initial reactions to the recommendations".I recognise that they have had only two months in which to read this report and therefore it will take them a little longer, However, I have to say that some of the remarks that were made in this are quite remarkable. In response to paragraph 5.2, the conflict between diversity and local government and the citizen's right to a uniform basic standard of service, they say,Why should the citizen have the right to a uniform basic standard of service?I accept that the illustrations that they give, which is that in urban areas it may be necessary to cleanse the footways and in rural areas not, is valid. However, frankly, that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about the standards of scientific service in environmental health, in waste disposal,and in a whole range of matters which have little or nothing to do with the example that is put in this initial response. I do not want to be unduly harsh on the Association of County Councils but I fear that this underlines part of the problem that we are facing. There is a lack of recognition in local government at many levels, particularly among elected members, of the degree of scientific involvement which exists in their own services.
I think it was clear to many of us when we took evidence from the Association of County Councils, and indeed also from the Association of District Councils, that there was no cohesive view as to scientific services in local government. Individual members had their own individual experiences but there was no cohesive view across the association. I believe that this is a weakness, and it is a weakness that we have highlighted in some of our recommendations. We have highlighted ways in which the weaknesses can be overcome.
469 It seems to me that at the moment far too much is left to the professional associations. Far too much of the information exchange depends upon local government officials actually getting together, either formally or informally, and exchanging information among themselves. That is an important facet and something that should not be disturbed, and indeed should be encouraged. It seems to me that there is also a need for awareness among elected members of local councils to be trained in knowledge of scientific method if they are to be able to understand what their officials are about. If their officials are to get proper recognition from their local authorities, then there is a need for local councillors to have a greater awareness of what is going on in the offices, laboratories and workshops of their own professionals.
On the question of the setting up of science and technology sub-committees, to which the noble Lord, Lord Butterworth, has referred, he is echoing words again from the Association of County Councils. They say:It is quite unnecessary for all local authorities to set up Science and Technology Sub-Committees, and inappropriate: science and technology are of fundamental importance to a whole range of services, and should be seen to permeate the approach of officers and members to service provision".Precisely: we absolutely agree that it should be seen to permeate the approach. The fact is that at the moment it does not—not across the whole piece. Of course, there are people in local government who, because of outside interests and background, have a scientific training and they play their part, but it cannot be said to permeate the whole piece. The reason why we would want to see these committees set up is that we believe that it should permeate the whole piece, and this is a mechanism for so doing. If people can think of better mechanisms for so doing, then of course we certainly would not stand in their way.
One of the problems that professional staff find is that there is a lack of understanding of the need for additional training, particularly in mid-career, among elected members of local government. Until the awareness of the role which is played by science and technology in their own authorities is better understood, then I am afraid that the officials receive a rather raw deal.
I believe we have had a more encouraging response, certainly on an informal basis, from contacts with the public analysts. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, referred to the Royal Society of Chemistry and the work that they do in maintaining the standards. It is through the public analysts that this impacts on local governments at the sharp end. I certainly have been extremely impressed by the competence and the high standards of excellence which exist in that group of people, who really are at the focal point of the chemistry and associated sciences relating to local government. I believe that in some cases, perhaps in many, it can be said that their methodology is better than that of the universities, that their methods of analysis, their ability to carry out those methods of analysis on a day-to-day basis probably are of a higher standard than the work that goes on at universities today, because of course it is different from the day-to-day work that many universities have to do. However, 470 again, I do not believe that the public and indeed, many councillors recognise how high that standard is.
There are one or two matters in the sections relating to the public analysts to which I should just like to draw attention. The question of regionalisation has already been mentioned. I think the committee was widely of the opinion that regionalisation should take place, if at all possible, but again this is a matter that can best be left to the local authorities with a prop from us to deal with the situation in their own local areas. However, there is no doubt that the matter of scale is important in producing the most effective services.
At paragraph 5.17 I believe, from what I have recently heard, that we are perhaps slightly wide of the mark. We say that local authorities should use water authority data in relation to public water supplies and normally rely on such data. I do not think that anybody would disagree in relation to public water supplies. However, there are a number of private water supplies for which the public analysts are still responsible, and I think that to suggest that the public analysts should completely back out of the provision, or the testing of water, and leave it to the water authorities, is going too far and is perhaps not what we had in mind.
On the question of accreditation, I think the public analysts would agree that there needs to be a greater emphasis. Again, I think we would not wish it to be thought that we were being critical of their ability and competence in these areas. It has been said to me that the difficulty they face is that they can be judged only by their failures, which are few and far between and therefore perhaps people do not recognise how high their standards are. When we make recommendations of the kind we have made, I do not think that it should at any stage be thought that we are suggesting that they are in general falling below standards that are required. Certainly, there can be few people in the country with higher standards.
The question of information technology has already been touched on. All I should say there is that I, personally, and from the evidence that I heard, felt that LAMSAC was an organisation that needed looking at very carefully; that it did not appear to be offering in its entirety the service that local government required, and that certainly at the larger local authority level people were finding that they were having to do their own software or go outside to get software. That seems to me to be a pity. How far it is due to the problems to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, was referring earlier, in terms of funding, I do not know. However, certainly LAMSAC has a very wide acceptance among local authorities, and it certainly is not a substitute for local authorities' science and technology sub-committees, which was suggested in one of the submissions I heard.
Although one could take many other aspects of this report, and deal with them in detail, I think it would be wrong to do so at this stage. I believe that this report makes a useful contribution even if it only awakens in the minds of local authorities, local authority associations and the Government the fact that science and technology is an important part of their function: that hidden away in nooks and crannies of their buildings they will find people doing remarkably good 471 jobs on behalf of the local population, looking after our health and safety, looking after noise pollution, looking after air pollution, saving us from the troubles of asbestos in our buildings. If this report does nothing else but heighten that awareness, then I believe it will have done a good job.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl for his very clear and able explanation of the report. The subject of science and technology in local government assumes greater and greater importance and I am very glad that the Select Committee chose to investigate it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, I hope that this debate will help to obtain some publicity for the report. It deals with many matters very important to the individual citizen—health, welfare and comfort; environmental matters like noise, air and water pollution and waste disposal. The general public is not very aware of the scientific and technical functions statutorily performed by local authorities.
There seem to me to be two areas of responsibility. There is the public health side which is looked after by the environmental health officers and the public and agricultural analysts, and the very rapidly developing information technology which influences, and can be made use of by, every service that local authorities provide and which need highly qualified and professional staff. The questions that the committee had to ask were these. How can these services be best delivered? How can the best use be made of the expertise that undoubtedly exists? How can well qualified and trained staff be retained and re-trained? How can innovations and techniques discovered be best exploited for the benefit of the consumer and the ratepayer? What should be the relationship between central and local government in these matters?
The committee has made a large number of recommendations, with most of which I would agree; but I shall have some comments to make on others. One of the most important decisions that the committee had to arrive at was the size of the organisation that can best deliver the fast-changing scientific and technical services. Should it be central, regional or local? Can a central or regional provision be responsive enough to local needs which can be very difficult in, say, a rural coastal area like Cornwall and a big city like Birmingham.
The committee came down in favour of large-scale operations, no doubt influenced in part by their knowledge of the GLC's scientific services renowned nationally and internationally, and used by authorities and organisations all over the country. These were dealt with in the interim report but, as that is referred to in paragraph 1.8 of the present report and as the reports really have to be taken together, I think it is in order to mention it today, as others have. I must admit that I found that the interim report had a good deal more punch and impact than the present one. This may have been because of the need to make a forceful case immediately.
What emerged in that report was the excellence and effectiveness of the services provided by large scale 472 operations which could be delivered by councils of the size of the GLC and the Mets. and the difficulties likely to be encountered if these are broken up. Alas! The committee's efforts during the passage of the Local Government Bill were only very marginally successful and we are now—just two months before abolition—hearing of the disasters (not, I think, too strong a word) which are happening to those services and the almost total unpreparedness of the succeeding bodies inheriting them. The London residuary body, to be wound up in three years rather than the five allowed in the Act, has appeared somewhat unenthusiastic about its responsibilities under Schedule 13, paragraph 8, to the Act. This requires the residuary bodies to review the services presently provided by the GLC and the Mets. It seems to be a bit odd, to say the least, that recently the review of the GLC has been conducted by officers seconded to the LRB from the GLC for the purpose. This really seems a rather an Alice-in-Wonderland situation.
I, too, have been able to cut out a large part of my speech because I heard only this morning—others evidently heard on Friday; and there are only two months to go—that the LRB will take on the scientific branch of the GLC; but, it would appear, only for a matter of months. This is very much a temporary respite and leaves the future still very uncertain, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has said. Perhaps the Minister can enlarge on this when he comes to reply.
The LRB which, as I have said, is to last for only three years is taking on the central computer services of the GLC and, because of the uncertainty and doubts about the survival of some of the central computer services' customers, staff are leaving the service. The fear is that the service will eventually be split up and/or privatised. The Select Committee chose, naturally, not to return too explicitly to criticism of the abolition of the GLC and the Mets; but their attitude is clearly set out in paragraph 4.8 on page 45 of the report which, because of its length, I will not read out. But it contains fears for the loss of talented people from the local government service, as some of the best job opportunities will be gone. The paragraph ends:The Committee consider the issue of career prospects to be important, and note the comment of the Fellowship of Engineering that 'a career in local government at any level is not generally perceived within the engineering profession as highly desirable'.I think that is a pity.
I have spoken of what is to happen to GLC services in the life after abolition. I should also like to refer to the environmental services following the abolition of the Merseyside County Council. My noble friend Lady White handed me a letter sent to her by Professor Bradshaw, the chairman of the Merseyside Environment Trust, enclosing a copy of a letter he had written to Mr. Kenneth Baker on 17th January expressing his very serious concern at the inability of district councils to make satisfactory arrangements for the maintenance of crucial environmental services from 1st April; land reclamation, environmental improvement, nature conservation, countryside recreation and education, and waste disposal. The Merseyside County Council's invaluable information resource on all these subjects, and more, is in danger of being dissipated or, indeed, thrown away.
473 It seems that the district councils are unable to agree any course of action, either individually or jointly; nor are they willing to co-operate with the residuary body which could provide a temporary home for specialist staff. Professor Bradshaw asks the Secretary of State to take some initiative to resolve this unhappy situation relating to these services. I hope that the Minister can tell us something about this when he replies because I have given him warning of my query.
I return now to the present report and authorities not affected by the Local Government Act 1985. What is going to be the best arrangement for satisfactory provision of all their services? Certainly large scale. There will not be enough expert scientists/analysts willing to serve in small laboratories. It is more interesting, more exciting, to be in larger groups where suggestions can be tested and ideas sparked off. There is, of course, a potential conflict between the case for diversity and the citizen's right to uniform, basic standards of service; but I would agree with the committee that large-scale operations are preferable provided there is some in-house expertise to enable the right questions to be asked. There would then be higher overall quality of staff and greater efficiency at any level of cost.
It would seem sensible for county councils to work in close co-operation with their constituent district councils, or, better still, several county councils and their districts. This has been successfully done with Avon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and their districts. I am aware of the Durham experiment where two councils and one Met. council got together to form the North-East region analytical service. But the service was not successful. It broke down—and I quote:due, it is claimed, to misconceptions as to the nature of the service and its true necessity and cost, an unwieldy system of local political control and unsatisfactory arrangements for the fair apportionment of costs".I know how difficult people can be, but I should have thought that where some councils and districts have managed to work together, a pattern for funding and so on could be worked out.
I have had brief comments on the report from the ACC, the AMA and the ADC. The ADC endorses the recommendation for increased co-operation between authorities and for the provision of services jointly or in collaboration with other authorities, as does the AMA. The ACC, commenting on recommendations 5.11 to 5.17, which are those dealing with joint or co-operative provision, said:These recommendations are generally acceptable as a set of principles, but it would not be appropriate to make them compulsory through legislation".I myself had doubts, as had other speakers, about the value of setting up a special science and technology committee in every local authority and I was interested to see that the ACC felt the same. I was going to quote the piece that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has quoted, but I have no need to do that now. I am more inclined to agree with the ACC because the end is not science and technology but the service, whatever that may require, and I just feel I would not be so dismissive of their opinion.
Similarly, I do not see the need for the public or agricultural analyst in the authorities that have them 474 to be given chief officer status. The recent tendency has been to reduce the number of committees and chief officers as a means of getting a more streamlined, efficient and economical service. But the analyst, of course, should have access to the management team and perhaps prepare an annual report for members, for means must be found to widen the scientific and technical awareness of elected members, as they do not have the professional associations that the analysts have. As the ACC says, the local authority associations are only as good as their members and would not themselves have the expertise to do the education job.
It just might be useful, as the noble Earl said, for the associations to have a science and technology committee to deal with functions relating to the information of members, the improvement of scientific and technical performance of member authorities. That is, of course, important because there are some backward authorities and it might stimulate them. I should have thought that use could be made of the higher and further education colleges, which have all the facilities needed, though of course they would have to be paid. The Open University has done a very good job in the training of governors and, I am sure, could do an equally good job in training councillors in this field.
I turn from the training of members to the training of local authority personnel working in this area. Many of them will be graduates with professional qualifications when they enter local authority service. Apparently, so far, there is little evidence of problems of recruitment except in computer applications, and here some good staff are being lost to the private sector, as I said was happening with the staff of the Central Computer Services for the GLC. The Association of Trading Officers, however, complain of a nationwide shortage of officers and not enough trainees. It is important, as recommendation 5.26 says, that there should be opportunities for mid-career training and updating in such a very fast moving subject. One or two larger authorities may possibly be able to provide some training programmes as can, of course, the Local Government Training Board; but central Government and the MSC should take a hand as well as the professional associations. Greater dependence is being placed on the professional associations, according to the Institute of Environmental Health Officers. They believe there is increasing need for post-qualification training. Again, local universities, higher education colleges and the Open University could be made use of; but central Government—and that means the DoE—must make funds available.
There is a good deal of implicit criticism of the DoE in the report, and the speech of the noble Earl at the beginning of the debate supports this. Recommendations 5.3, 5.4 and 5.37 show that not nearly enough support, financial and other, is given to help with training and research which local authorities, in their present straits, are not going to be able to fund themselves. The IEHO is strong on this and I quote from one of their submissions:For the department to reject the idea that it has any responsibility for local authority research is wrong: they obtain benefit and could play much more of a role in co-ordinating activity and directing efforts. This could avoid wasting scarce resources.475 In parenthesis, it is odd that there is no environmental health officer presence within the DoE and that they receive no support from local government.
A further criticism made by the IEHO is that results from relevant Government-sponsored research and indeed academic research, are not made available to local authorities soon, or clearly enough, even if at all. Central Government should encourage staff to have exchanges with Government-funded research establishments. The lack of skilled manpower is going to be one of the problems of the future, and everything should be done to make trained staff want to stay in the public service. Those who are now highly trained will otherwise do as some of the staff of the CCS of the GLC have done, and use their experience as a springboard into higher paid jobs in the private sector or set up as consultants or join private consultancy firms. Do the Government realise the disaster it is that teams of experts, built up over the years, doing wonderful work, could well be scattered and their services lost? Many other speakers have made this point.
I should like to raise a specific point on Recommendation 5.23 in the section headed "Innovation", which recommends that the marketing of innovative techniques or expertise should be by means of private companies set up for the purpose. I have given the Minister warning of my question, which is: Is it legal for local authorities to set up private companies? The noble Baronesses, Lady Lockwood and Lady Stedman, also expressed anxieties about this. One local authority I know took leading counsel's opinion on this, and counsel's advice was that it would be illegal. Sections 111 and 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 were not considered to give the necessary authority, although Section 38 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 does empower a local authority to sell spare capacity on its computer on a commercial basis.
It is encouraging that a lot of good, competitive work is being done. For example, I heard of the invention of a camera which can do road surveying and find out the cracks in fantastic time—far sooner than many human surveyors could. It is quite natural that if an authority has spent considerable sums on equipment and invented new techniques or new methods, it should want to get back some of the original cost. I am reminded that we had a small further education Bill last Session, particularly aimed at legalising the setting up of companies by higher and further education colleges to market their expertise and their inventions. Were they in a different position from the local authority themselves?
There is the associated question of how members of staff who are innovative can be rewarded. The committee recommend taking out patents. Is it correct that many local authorities are moving towards bonus payments for their more talented employees? I look forward to the Minister's response on this.
What finally comes out of this report are the enormous possibilities for local government to make itself much more efficient and adaptable and to give to 476 the ordinary citizen a much better service and a more attractive way of life. But if central Government—the DoE—do not see the dangers in cutting back on resources and giving adequate support, staff and expertise could well be lost and services built up over the years dissipated or destroyed. Speaker after speaker has emphasised that. I hope the Minister will have an encouraging answer to give to the committee this afternoon after the hard work its chairman and members have put into this very excellent report.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate this evening on behalf of the Government, not only because I have been privileged to respond to such reports before, but because I have followed the deliberations of the committee with close interest. Further-more, the department for which I normally speak has a direct interest in the matter in hand. Indeed, it has submitted oral or written evidence on no fewer than five occasions. This was not all. Eight other Government departments responded.
Looking now at the full weight of the evidence in Volume II, one cannot but be impressed by the thorough and wide-ranging nature of the inquiry. I agree with every noble Lord who has spoken on this. Although, inevitably, the Government will not ultimately be able to subscribe to each and every recommendation, taken as a whole this is an important set of proposals. They deserve very careful consideration by all the bodies concerned, and I can assure the House that they will get just that. However, my response this evening is the Government's interim response to the report. The full one will, of course, have to wait until the early summer or thereabouts.
I find the report's conclusion on the general high quality of local scientific and technical services to be reassuring. It certainly squares with our experience, and I agree with all noble Lords who have pointed to the expertise and the excellence of these local government services. One is always impressed that most local authorities, in discharging a range of duties, are able to meet such diverse scientific and technical requirements so effectively. Confirmation that no major or urgent action is needed to remedy weaknesses is, therefore, to be welcomed and is a justified vote of confidence in the expertise and dedication of specialist staff in local government.
The Government support many of the major themes in the report, such as the importance of scientific and technical services in ensuring the effective provision of services and the execution of legislation at local level. In passing, I would comment that they are perhaps too often an unsung area of endeavour in local government. Then there is the crucial importance of maintaining the contribution of scientific and technical officers at its present high level, so as to enable elected members to discharge their responsibilities to their ratepayers. Not only this, there is the essential role of information technology both in increasing efficiency, at a time of necessary restraint in the use of resources; the need to recognise the essential 477 diversity of local government and, with it, the scope for innovation; and yet, at the same time, the corresponding need to ensure the effective distribution and cost-effective results of innovation.
In agreeing with those points, we must never forget the need for value for money in the pursuit of greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness. I know that I will have an ally here in the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, who left me in no doubt about that during the housing investment and homeless debate in your Lordships' House on 24th April last. These are themes which it is essential for local authorities and local government as a whole to develop in meeting changing needs and technological developments. Understandably, the majority of the recommendations by the Select Committee are addressed to local government itself. Like your Lordships, I will be watching developments with the utmost interest and the Government will be consulting with the local authority associations on the recommendations of mutual concern.
Other recommendations, though, are addressed to central Government, as have been many of the questions posed this afternoon, and warrant the fullest consideration by the departments concerned. The House will not therefore, at this early stage, expect me to react in detail to each of them. However, I wish to remark on the central issue of the degree of government intervention in the provision of scientific and technical services in local government.
The department's evidence to the committee outlined the general relationship between central and local government. It stressed that each local authority has considerable autonomy within overall financial limits in arranging for the discharge of its duties and responsibilities. Each authority is answerable to its own electorate and not to Ministers or their departments. We must maintain and strengthen those essential conditions of local responsibility and accountability.
It follows from this that it is not, in our view, for central Government for the most part to determine or influence the detailed nature of scientific and technical services provided by local government. There are, of course, notable exceptions to that principle, as the report states, in the case of the police and fire services. But the principle none the less remains, and I agree with my noble friend Lord Bessborough that, if central Government were to get much more involved than it is, the costs for the taxpayer would inevitably rise. Such fundamental matters, therefore, as the number and type of specialists employed at a given local authority and their training and deployment, are essentially ones for local decision. So is the question of what external sources of expertise should be drawn upon. That was the general theme of our evidence. It applies not least to abolition.
In my family, we have an expression which is used for when we do not particularly want to go somewhere again. It is, "Been there, Gran". This applies today in view of the abolition aspect of the report. Nevertheless, I would be doing the committee less than justice if I did not briefly comment upon it. I note that the myths are already growing. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook said that abolition stole up on the Select Committee. 478 My noble friend Lord Bessborough dealt firmly with that. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said that the committee was asked to publish an interim report. Who by, my Lords? Certainly not by Her Majesty's Government or, so far as I can recall, by the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, said that all centres of excellence will go. That simply is not so, as I shall explain.
The Government have emphasised throughout the abolition debate that our objective is that decisions should devolve to successors. We have set the framework for them to do this either individually or collectively, wherever necessary, through the co-ordinating committees in London and in each of the metropolitan counties. Following the various useful debates during the passage of the Local Government Act that followed the publication of the interim report of your Lordships' Committee, we added in this House an amendment to strengthen the roles of the residuary bodies. This was designed to ensure that no worthwhile services were lost simply through transitional difficulties. But the bodies' role is still to facilitate decisions by the boroughs and districts and other successors. It is not to take decisions for them, still less to thrust the Government's decisions upon successors whether they like them or not.
My noble friend Lord Cranbrook asked about the future of the research and intelligence function and the London accident analysis unit. These are being discussed between the London residuary body and the boroughs. A paper is being taken by Wednesday's meeting of the London co-ordinating committee. We consider it sensible for the accident data to be considered with the research and intelligence function, and we hope that the boroughs will reach agreement on arrangements for the establishment of a unit to carry out the function.
As to the metropolitan counties, arrangements differ between them. I make no apology for that. The important thing is that the districts have considered this question. The Government stand by the assurances given during the passage of the Local Government Act to safeguard the collection and analysis of accident data. The Secretary of State for Transport is keeping closely in touch with the discussions proceeding between the boroughs and the London residuary body and stands ready to offer any appropriate assistance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, mentioned "tortuous discussions". I do not accept that phrase at all. Successors have generally given very serious consideration to the specialist services run by the county councils. Lead district arrangements have been agreed upon for a good many services. Elsewhere, successors are recruiting individual county staff into their existing departments. I am satisfied that, although there have been initial difficulties, the co-ordinating committees are being generally effective in carrying out their responsibilities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, led us into residuary bodies. The residuary bodies have made progress in carrying out their responsibility to review specialist teams. I must emphasise, since the noble Baroness seems to be labouring under a misapprehension, that residuary bodies are not taking 479 over functions from the GLC or the MCCs. They are there to help the permanent successors—boroughs, districts and others—to set up arrangements during the transitional period, if those successors so wish. Generally the bodies' relationship with both the abolition authorities and the successors has been fruitful in bringing individual services and expertise to the attention of the successors and in promoting discussion over future arrangements. In many cases, the successors have said that they do not wish to make use of the residuary bodies as temporary homes, but the Government have made clear that they are ready to transfer staff to the bodies whenever successors ask them to take on specialist teams for which a permanent home is in prospect and are prepared to pay for them. I do not know where the noble Baroness, Lady David, got the idea that the London residuary body is to be wound up after three years, as I think she said. I very much doubt if three years would give it enough time to fulfil the role that I have outlined.
My noble friend Lord Cranbrook and the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, both, not surprisingly, mentioned the GLC scientific branch. As for the future of this, my noble friend Lord Bessborough is quite right: the London Co-ordinating Committee agreed at its meeting last December that a central scientific unit should be retained under the wing of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority. Detailed arrangements are due to be discussed at the committee's meeting later this week. It will be for the fire authority, if the general proposals are approved, to decide how many staff to take on and whether to do so by recruitment or by transfer under which the staff would retain exactly their existing terms and conditions.
I should like to warn the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that he has also very nearly produced another myth. It is not true to say that the London residuary body is taking over. Should arrangements not be finalised in time, then, and only then, will it be possible for the London residuary body to take on the staff temporarily, provided the boroughs and other successor authorities so request. But it is not at this present moment going lock, stock and barrel to the London residuary body.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for this explanation. I am not sure that it does not leave us all rather more confused and perhaps the employees even more confused than that. My understanding this morning was that on Friday a decision had been made that the staff were not now going to the Fire and Civil Defence Authority but were in fact going to the residuary body. The noble Lord the Minister is now telling me that that is not the case and that in fact there is still no decision as to where those staff are going.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I am saying that that is not so. I said that it is expected that the fire authority will take over the staff but failing that, for an interim period, the residuary body will take it over. That is only if arrangements cannot be made in time. Therefore I can give the staff the reassurance that the noble Lord has asked me to give them.
480 The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, also referred to the shuttlecocks of national politics. I take his point but I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and others, who have suggested that almost by definition teams should stay in being as they have been set up by the GLC or the MCCs. I agree with my noble friend Lord Butterworth that this is for the successors to decide after they have assessed their own needs. I repeat that the Government do not propose to second guess their decisions.
Perhaps I could reinforce some of the evidence that I referred to earlier as being given by my department and other Government departments by touching on some general trends in government policy that have adjusted the relationship between central and local government. First, detailed controls. In 1979 a White Paper announced the determination to reduce substantially the number of detailed bureaucratic controls exercised by Government over local authority activities. As a result, more than 250 minor controls have been removed. There is the flow of information from local to central Government mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. Positive action has been taken to reduce the burdens imposed on local government by requests for statistical information. For example, my department has reduced by more than a half since 1980 the number of statistical forms sent to local authorities.
Finally, I would note the changes in controls, as did my noble friend Lord Sandford, over local authority capital expenditure introduced in 1981. This gave authorities the freedom to determine for themselves how available resources should be used as between a variety of services and as between projects within those services. All these measures devolve more choice, flexibility and accountability to the local level. It is against this background that the Government must set the Select Committee's recommendations on their future role on local scientific and technical services. The proposals are that central Government should adopt a more interventionist stance in relation to local scientific and technical services; that departments should conduct detailed monitoring of functional performance by local authorities; and that they should also take on an expanded role on local government research and development. While I would not wish to underplay in any, way the collaborative role which exists in many areas of science and technology between central and local government, I cannot at present accept that such far-reaching recommendations would be beneficial either for central or, more importantly, for local government. I do, however, recognise, as I said at the outset, that they rest on an incisive and balanced review of the field.
I turn to the various points that have been raised this afternoon by your Lordships. Perhaps I can go through them one by one as much as I have time for and respond in writing to those that I fall by the wayside upon—if that is the phrase. The noble Baroness, Lady David, mentioned the Merseyside environmental services. As ever—and this is a point that I have made before—it is for the districts on Merseyside to decide how they will wish to provide environmental services. I understand that St. Helens has put forward a proposal to take on specialist teams for environmental improvement including derelict land reclamation. It is 481 for them to agree with the other districts whether any or all of them wish to make use of the team, and if so on what terms.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I understand that the districts were not agreeing and were not taking on the services. What will happen if by 1st April nothing has been arranged?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the boroughs and districts have to make a positive decision that they do not want something. If they do not want it, to the best of my knowledge and belief that particular something will lapse.
As I was saying, it is for them to agree with the other districts whether any or all of them wish to make use of the team, and if so on what terms. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, agreed with paragraph 5.39 of the report that local government should set up a technical information service. This is a matter for local government itself to consider especially through the local authority associations. LAMSAC already has a role here and this recommendation might be borne in mind when considering the future development of such central and local government bodies. Academic institutions and units such as the inelegantly named LGORU—the Local Government Operational Research Unit—at the University of Reading may also have a role, but local government itself is best equipped to decide how a dissemination service would be organised, co-ordinated and serviced.
The noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Lockwood, and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Hunter, referred to a recommendation that local authorities should be encouraged to market innovative techniques or expertise as long as this does not detract from the service provided to ratepayers. Marketing should be by means of private companies set up for the purpose. The Government most certainly agree, and I agree equally with the noble Lord, Lord Hunter, who reminded us that it was a highlight of the Audit Commission's report on good management in local government.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, may I intervene again? My question was whether this was legal, and I gave warning of it.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, we will get there with a little patience, if you please, from the House. As the House will know, local authorities have for a number of years set up private companies for a number of purposes. They do so using their discretionary powers under Section 111 and 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. I understand, as does the noble Baroness, Lady David, that legal doubts have been introduced. I am advised that these concern particular types of company in particular circumstances. The precise purpose of a given company and its relationship with its sponsoring authority may, in the opinion of counsel, create problems. Other legal views exist. This is fairly muddy ground and it is still being churned over. I am neither able nor qualified to offer a definitive legal view on the issues involved. I can, however, assure the noble Baroness that the Government are watching developments closely and 482 the Widdicombe Inquiry on the conduct of local government business is expected to offer a general view on companies when it publishes its final report in April. So the point is well noted and we are looking at it.
The concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, about the future, following the abolition of a company set up by West Yorkshire County Council to market products of technological innovation, is completely new to me. I shall have inquiries made and will write to the noble Baroness on the results of my research.
Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, mentioned Recommendation 5.5 concerning local authority organisation and science and technology sub-committees. Like the noble Baroness, Lady David, the Government warmly welcome the intention of the proposal to pool scientific and technical expertise in local authorities, and so increase awareness of the authorities' need for scientific and technical services and improve precision in the execution of local functions requiring science and technology support.
I agree with what was said by my noble friend Lord Butterworth on this subject, and also with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and the noble Baroness Lady David, on the need for the education of elected members; even though I am not an elected Member, I have been highly educated since I arrived in this House some few years ago.
The recommendation that the public analyst service should move towards regionalisation of laboratories provided that accessibility to local authorities is maintained was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. Yet again, it is for local government to take the initiative as it sees fit on any reorganisation of the public analyst service. I would say that that recommendation is a departure from our current policy and that it will require a lot of inter-departmental discussion and consultation with the local authority associations before we can accede to that particular recommendation.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, before the Minister leaves that subject, does he have any words of comfort for me about the in-fighting in respect of the appointment of the Merseyside county analyst?
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but I thought I heard him say that this will be a matter for local authorities but that the Government will stop them if they think fit.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I am trying to get through in a reasonable amount of time, and I am attempting to cover as many points as I can. If I am indistinct then I hope that I shall not be so indistinct when the noble Lord comes to read the Official Report.
To the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, I would say that local government does not disseminate its research in a comprehensive and co-ordinated way. LAMSAC and the associations play a role in that, and I note the criticisms of LAMSAC that have been made 483 by several noble Lords. There are initiatives by academics in local government to produce registers, and the department is part-funding one such initiative by Cambridgeshire County Council.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, asked about the future of the minerals plan produced by the Greater Manchester council. I am afraid that in the time available it has not been possible to establish the position fully. I will write to the noble Baroness, but meanwhile I can say that Salford has been nominated as lead district with responsibility for future minerals planning.
I do not believe that it would be right at this moment to go into the details of rate support grant as it applies to the report. The suggestion that scientific and technical needs and capabilities ought to be separately recognised in the grant-related expenditure element is somewhat misconceived. Grant-related assessments are need assessments; they do not prescribe how much an authority should spend on a particular function. Block grant is paid in support of an authority's services generally, so, even if a separate grant-related expenditure were established, the authority would continue to have full discretion to determine the priority that it gave to expenditure on scientific and technical services.
I have managed to get myself in a slight muddle and out of order. However, a few minutes ago I was speaking on the subject of waste. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, based her speech entirely on that subject. Some of the answers to her questions are encompassed by what I have already said, but I shall take the opportunity of writing to the noble Baroness on what I may call her non-report points.
There are a couple of other points also that, in the interests of this House, I shall not go into now. I shall conclude by saying that the Select Committee's report does of course touch on the interests of a number of government departments. I find it particularly useful, therefore, to hear the views of the House as a whole on this matter. We shall take careful note of everything that has been said here today when framing the formal response to the committee.
§ 6.5 p.m.
The Earl of Cranbrook
My Lords, despite the kind words that have been said, I found it extremely difficult to introduce this large report, and I was not able to do so fully to my own satisfaction. I was therefore grateful to those fellow members of the committee and also to those noble Lords—which term of course includes noble Baronesses—who picked up issues upon which I should have liked to have an opportunity myself to enlarge had there been time. I should also like to give my warmest congratulations to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, with his difficult job on the Front Bench, for the way he so ably attempted to field the very large battery of questions that were thrown at him.
I should like to take a brief moment to lay a potential myth that my noble friend the Minister has himself brought up. I did not use the words "stole up"; the abolition Bill did not steal up on me. I went into the Select Committee with my eyes open, knowing that it would not be a particularly easy job. What did 484 come up, not as an unexpected surprise but as an entirely open eventuality, was whether or not we should be forced by the issues to produce an interim report. That was an absolutely open question when we started our inquiry, and in my view circumstances justified our action in so doing. However, I do not think it was fair to say that I had pretended that things "stole up" on me—I do not pretend that.
The one thing that I do not want to see run and run is this business of science and technology subcommittees within policy and resources committees. I myself have been a local government man and I have sat on a number of such committees. It is a regrettable symptom of our age that there is resistance to recognising the involvement of science and technology in so many of our activities in life, including local government. That aspect needs to be reviewed, I believe, and needs to be reviewed on a continuing basis—not just occasionally by a Select Committee of this House. I hope that our stimulus will make local authorities undertake such a review. How they do so I do not really mind, provided that it is done on a perpetual basis.
The other points that are made in our report have provided the basis for a very adequate debate. It is my duty now to move that this House takes note of the report. I so move.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.